Unfortunately, we have another COVID Christmas on our hands, and the highly contagious omicron variant is an unwelcome guest.
There are, however, some notable differences between the pandemic of last Christmas and the one we’re experiencing today.
The COVID-19 vaccine was rolled out in early 2021, and booster shots to increase protection against the virus are being given to adults and some teenagers. Children 5 and up can now receive their first vaccinations. We know more about the virus and how it spreads now. At-home rapid tests are now available – though they might be hard to find at the moment. And this week, the FDA authorized emergency use of two antiviral pills to treat COVID-19.
In some ways, it feels like a far cry from the 2020 holiday season, where mask mandates were the norm and the best guidance was to cancel your plans and stay at home, avoid travel, and only celebrate with immediate family — that is, if they tested negative for COVID-19. .
But as the omicron variant continues to spread throughout the country, so does a sense of deja vu.
Omicron quickly became the dominant strain in the U.S. and now makes up at least 73% of new infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Vaccines still do a good job of preventing severe illness, experts say. But the omicron variant seems to have a way of sneaking past the defense mechanisms that might have stopped the delta variant or other strains of the virus altogether.
“People who thought that they wouldn’t have to worry about infection this winter if they had their booster do still have to worry about infection with omicron,” Trevor Bedford, a virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told The Atlantic. “I’ve been going to restaurants and movies, and now with omicron, that will change.”
And for people who are unvaccinated, immunocompromised, or have yet to receive a booster shot, the impact could be much more severe.
“If you are unvaccinated, I’m worried about you,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told CBS News. “I’m worried that your risk of being hospitalized or, God forbid, losing your life to this virus is quite significant. It still remains the case that getting vaccinated and boosted is the best way to protect yourself, even against omicron.”
In other words, even if you’re vaccinated and have received a booster shot, it’s important to think carefully about your holiday plans and do your best to minimize risk — not just for your own sake, but for the health of everyone around you.
Here are some tips experts offer to keep yourself and your loved ones safe this holiday season.
Is it safe to gather with my family?
Dr. Anthony Fauci said this week that people who are fully vaccinated and boosted should “feel comfortable having a holiday meal or gathering with family members who are also vaccinated and boosted,” Today reported.
Getting boosted before a family gathering also helps to protect members of the family who are immunocompromised — for example, older people or people with chronic illnesses — as well as people who can’t get vaccinated, like young children under 5.
The CDC also recommended that people get tested before gathering with family and make sure to gather in a well-ventilated area.
Can I hang out safely with my friends?
It depends. Meeting up with one friend to spend time together poses a different risk than going to a holiday party with a gaggle of guests.
Either way, it’s smart to be vaccinated and boosted, and to get tested before spending time together, especially if you don’t know what risks your friends have been exposed to. Omicron is much more transmissible than previous variants and might surpass even our best defenses, including highly-effective masks and vaccines, health experts say.
Your risk calculus also depends on whether or not you and your friends live with vulnerable people. If you plan to spend the holidays with your elderly grandparents, for instance, or your friends have little kids who can’t get vaccinated, it’s a good idea to cut back on other social obligations to reduce the risk that anyone carries the virus home, NPR reported.
That holds especially true for teens or college-aged young adults, who might otherwise assume that their same-age friends are generally not vulnerable to infection or are used to “living with the virus,” according to NPR.
Essentially, even a small gathering that might not have seemed so risky a month or two ago is worth re-evaluating now, Vox reported. Other countries have enforced mandates on those small events to curb the spread of the virus; South Korea has limited private gatherings to no more than four people, Vox reported, and the Netherlands currently allows residents only two visitors, CNBC reported.
As for larger holiday gatherings, it’s a good idea to just take a rain check this year, Dr. Fauci said this week.
“There are many of these parties that have 30, 40, 50 people in which you do not know the vaccination status of individuals. Those are the kind of functions in the context of Omicron that you do not want to go to,” Fauci said at a White House briefing.
Can I go to the movies?
The holiday season usually brings forth a couple of blockbusters that audiences will be eager to see. Among crowd favorite “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” effervescent musical “Sing 2” and the highly-anticipated “The Matrix Resurrections,” it seems like there’s something for everyone.
This time last year, most big movie releases were limited to streaming platforms.. But this year, some movies have debuted exclusively in theaters, with their streaming releases slated for several months after the premiere. (“The Matrix Resurrections” is available to stream on HBO Max.)
Like everything else, the decision to see a movie in a theater depends on your personal risk calculus.
Dr. Scott Roberts, associate medical director for infection prevention at Yale New Haven Hospital, told the Hartford Courant that he would probably skip the movies this year.
“I think if you’re able to mask and distance and you’re vaccinated, that’s a decision [people] could have, whether or not they want to take that risk,” Roberts told the outlet. “My own gestalt is, we’re in the middle of a very large surge with a variant we don’t know much about, so I’m always more cautious, where I would advise really everyone to take caution rather than not, because it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
How about dinner at a restaurant? Going out for drinks?
Unfortunately, indoor dining might once again pose a significant risk with the presence of omicron, health experts say.
Health experts have long asserted that indoor dining is especially risky because you can’t eat with a mask on. Diners inevitably spend a significant portion of their time in a restaurant unmasked, leaving them vulnerable. And the CDC continues to classify indoor dining — especially without social distancing — a high risk activity.
Given how transmissible omicron is, it might be best to not take any chances — at least, that’s what some experts are doing.
Bob Wachter, chair of the University of California, San Francisco Department of Medicine, said in a Twitter thread on Dec. 17 that he would personally not dine indoors, even though San Francisco had a low infection rate and an 80% vaccination rate.
Warner Greene, a virologist and senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, told The San Francisco Chronicle that, even though he previously felt “very comfortable” dining indoors while vaccinated, the omicron variant has changed that.
“I think we are facing a highly, highly infectious variant,” Greene told the Chronicle. “We haven’t seen anything like this. I can only say my own personal feeling is I’m suspending indoor dining for the present until I see exactly where this omicron outbreak goes, until it recedes.”
By this logic, bars and clubs are similarly dangerous — maybe even more so — given that those settings often involve people talking loudly or shouting to hear one another, standing close together, being unmasked, and having lowered inhibitions that might keep them from being cautious about the virus, Vox reported.
Are sporting events OK to attend?
Omicron is causing all sorts of problems in the sports world, but mostly for teams, not spectators.
The NHL, NBA and NFL have had dozens of players test positive for COVID-19 over the past couple of weeks, forcing teams to postpone games and play with depleted rosters. The same holds true for college athletics.
Health experts have said that sporting events — especially if crowded and indoors — are potential breeding grounds for COVID-19 because the virus is spread when an infected person sneezes or coughs and others breathe in those droplets.
“I would definitely avoid those if possible,” Roberts told the Hartford Courant. “Many people are unmasked at those gatherings, they’re crunched close together, everybody is sort of shouting at the team and aerosolizing the virus and spreading it all over. So I think that’s a risky endeavor.”
That said, interest in attending a sporting event indoors has only decreased slightly from May 2021 to now, from 59% to 55%, according to the Seton Hall University Sports Poll.
Outdoor events are safer than those indoors, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but can still be problematic if you’re surrounded by screaming and cheering fans.
But what about a football game at a stadium where the weather dictates whether the roof is open or closed?
Such will be the case on Dec. 31 at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where No. 1 Alabama will play No. 4 Cincinnati for the right to advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship game.
Capacity at the stadium won’t be limited and 70,000-plus spectators are expected to attend.
AT&T Stadium says it is implementing “a series of health and sanitization policies and procedures and are monitoring guidelines from the CDC and public health officials.”
Non-vaccinated fans are encouraged to wear a mask and everyone is asked to practice social distancing.
Is is safe to fly with omicron surging?
It’s been a long year, and plenty of people have been looking forward to traveling during the holidays — whether it’s a ski vacation or just a trip home to see loved ones.
But flying amid the spread of the omicron variant is more dangerous than air travel was just a month or two ago, experts suggest.
David Powell, medical adviser to the International Air Transport Association, told Bloomberg News that “whatever the risk was with delta, we would have to assume the risk would be two to three times greater with omicron, just as we’ve seen in other environments.”
If you must travel this holiday season, there are several precautions experts recommend.
First, wear a medical-grade mask, like an N95 or KN95. Cloth masks aren’t as effective at preventing the spread of the virus and shouldn’t even be considered for air travel, The Washington Post reported.
Second, be cautious about eating and drinking. For a short flight, do your best to wear your mask the entire time. For a longer journey, try to eat when the people around you are wearing their masks.
“If at all possible, avoid eating and drinking entirely,” The Los Angeles Times said.
Third, do your best to avoid crowds inside the airport. Travelers should try to eat before getting to the airport or look for a remote place inside to eat and drink, The Washington Post reported.
Ultimately, there’s no risk-proof way to travel by air, experts say. Everyone should take the time to ask themselves how important travel is to them at this time of year, how protected their family members are, and how much they trust other travelers to also minimize risk and follow COVID protocol, The New York Times reported.